Remembering Bill Shafer's remarkable legacy

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Galen Gockel

Certainly those who remember Bill Shafer's contributions to Oak Park's history will recall his exemplary work as our township assessor [Bill Shafer, 89, Oak Park Township assessor, electric car advocate, Obituaries, Jan. 19]. He breathed new life into a moribund public office upon his election in 1981. Motivated by a strong belief in citizen-based democracy, he converted an absentee, largely hidden office into one based on constituent and community service.

What is less known is Bill's previous key role in Oak Park's successful struggle to prove the pundits wrong in the early 1970s. At that time the smart money assumed that the town would undergo the rapid racial transition which had characterized Chicago's West Side. The block busters were licking their chops, assuming that money was to be made by provoking white flight. However, all elements of this very conservative community banded together to fight the good fight. Goldwater Republicans and Gene McCarthy flower children had a common opponent, i.e., rapid racial change. Personal or political differences were subordinated to a common goal.

Bill, along with many others, stepped into this community stew. He was instrumental in forming "hundred clubs" — also known as block clubs. Their purpose was to bring neighbors together to compare notes, support each other and combat rumors while welcoming newcomers to their block. He was one of those who intuited that a community is strong to the extent that its leaders can reduce the number of "degrees of separation" among its members, (although that concept was not yet in vogue). When there is a dense web of communication, common values can be identified, and a kind of glue will keep residents connected to each other and their community.

Bill was not alone, of course. Sadly, many of the valiant warriors during the decade of Oak Park's renaissance have gone to their eternal reward. But some are still with us. Among them, I am thinking of Virginia Cassin and John Dwyer, who operated as a de facto community relations department from a small office in the Bishop Quarter building on Lake Street over 40 years ago. On the educational front, Marilyn Lehman served as the District 97 board president in the early 1970s, and guided the elementary school district through a reorganization which changed all school boundaries, so that no building would become racially identifiable. And in housing, the village board supported the visionary efforts of Roberta Raymond, who singlehandedly founded the Regional Housing Center, still an important guardian of racial diversity.

The book has not yet been written about the efforts of Oak Park citizens and leaders like Bill Shafer, to whom current residents owe so much. We cannot name them all. For now, new residents of Oak Park should be required to read Robert Giles' seminal and extensive work on that era, "Government, Race and Elementary Education in Oak Park, Illinois."

So long, Bill. You are missed.

Galen Gockel served on the District 97 school board from 1971 to 1977 and as Oak Park Township assessor from 1993 to 2001.

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